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Summertime 'sled rides'

There's more to paragliding from Mount Roberts than jumping off a ledge

Posted: September 1, 2013 - 5:19pm  |  Updated: September 1, 2013 - 11:02pm
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Andy Engstrom of the Juneau Eagles Paragliders Club launches his wing from Mt. Roberts in June.  Michael Penn | Juneau Empire
Michael Penn | Juneau Empire
Andy Engstrom of the Juneau Eagles Paragliders Club launches his wing from Mt. Roberts in June.

Days like these are only good for 10-minute sled rides.

The cloud cover is dense, it’s drizzly outside and the winds off the mountain are blowing 10 miles per hour.

The paragliding pilot trying to jump off Mount Roberts has to climb higher than his usual launch site to avoid the crosswinds down below.

“Being close to the mountain when it’s windy like that is not a good place to be because if you have any kind of turbulent air, your wing can collapse,” Gerry Donohoe explains, adding he doesn’t particularly want to deploy the safety parachute secured to his waist. “And if you’re going to collapse, you want a lot of air underneath you.”

“You’ve seen the Taku winds hitting the water here?” he asks.

I nod.

“Yeah, something like that would really make your wing just fold up.”

On our ride up the tram — a seasonal luxury for paragliding pilots who must trudge up the mountain in the early spring and forge their own path — Donohoe spies fellow pilot Brett Neyhart taking flight. His green paraglider catches the breeze and steadily descends down toward the channel, following the path of the mountain’s slope.

From our perspective at the top of the tramway at 1,800 feet, it looks likes he’s going to land in the water. It prompts a gasp from Donohoe’s wife.

“It looks likes he’s right over the water,” she says

“No, he’s still about 500 feet in the air,” her husband reassures her.

“It’s a little scary to watch,” she says.

Neyhart, who holds the Juneau Eagles Paragliding Club altitude record of 8,200 feet and duration record of four hours and 20 minutes, hovers in the air in an apparent lull then does Figure-8’s on his way to the landing site at the Rock Dump. Donohoe calls him on his cell after watching him land safely.

“How was your flight?” he asks.

“It was a sled ride,” he says simply.

That means no lift. Atop a 2,000-foot mountain, it means a descent rate of about 200 feet per minute.

“You basically get a 10 minute flight,” Donohoe says.

It’s bright outside as the sunshine presses up against the ceiling of clouds. The only rays breaking through, though, are on the other side of the water.

No sunny skies means no thermals.

Thermals are one of those invisible things — you can’t see it until you’re wrapped up in one. Ever been to the beach and observed seagulls float higher and higher above the sea without a single wing flap? They’re caught in a thermal.

Paragliding pilots live for thermals. The columns of warm, rising air lift them high above the Gastineau, Sheep and Hawthorne peaks and carry them from downtown to as far as Auke Bay. Donohoe says he sometimes lands at the bus stop parking lot there.

“When it’s sunny and you can catch a thermal then you can climb up, go high and go far and stay up for three hours. Those days are ideal,” Donohoe says. “In the meantime, you get sled rides.”

Still at the tramway staring out a bay window overlooking the channel, Donohoe tells his wife and me we need to get going. He’s getting antsy and looks at the sky.

“The window to fly today was probably from noon to about 2 o’clock because it was still blue sky out,” he says. “You notice that the sky is really covered up now and the rain. It’s all about timing.”

Wearing a blue bandana around his head and 30-pound pack on his back, Donohoe climbs the winding path up the mountain’s ridge alongside a dozen or so tourists who came for a view. We stop briefly at The Cross, and Donohoe talks about his upcoming trip to South America where he will glide in Chile.

Donohoe says he probably does about 50 flight hours a year in Juneau.

“Do you do this in the winter?” I ask.

“Yeah,” he says. “In Hawaii.”

On this path, he’s had incredible up-close wildlife viewing experiences. One time, he said he saw a wolf poke its nose in a bear’s den, and the mother bear jumped down from a nearby tree, ran across the snow and chased it off.

“That was pretty wild to watch,” he says.

At the word “wolf” a passerby on the path holding a child stopped in his tracks.

“Oh, no, that was in the winter,” Donohoe’s wife tells the man. “He’s telling a story.”

The man continued on his way.

At the south-facing launch site, several hundred feet above the wind sock that marks another designated site, Donohoe goes through his checklist and makes sure everything is good to go: the lines connecting the wing to his chest harness are uncrossed; his speed bar is in place; his flight path is clear.

“That’s not a problem here in Juneau,” he said of the latter point, a joke referring to the fact that only seven or eight people routinely paraglide in Juneau.

Facing away from the mountain’s ledge, his orange and white wing is in front of him spread out on the ground in a horseshoe shape. He does what he calls “building a wall,” which is letting the wind lift the wing off the ground. He holds it in place in the air above his head.

“Now it’s just a matter of waiting for the right wind,” he said, turning to face the ledge.

As he waits, he shares his take-off plan with me, then pauses and says, “That’s the plan at least. You never know what’s going to happen when you put the wing up, which kind of makes it exciting.”

Two tourists from Canada join our group and wait with cameras ready. Donohoe glances behind him to see if the leaves on the Alders are rustling. They’re still.

“How’s that wind feel to you, ladies?” he asks his wife and I.

“Nice,” she responds.

“Alright,” he says.

He puts his head down and takes a few running steps. Before he reaches the ledge, the wind lifts the wing, and he’s airborne.

He immediately begins to sink downwind, and soon he’s just an orange speck floating down the mountain’s slope.

The wind is too strong for acrobatics, but he could still do a few 360s before landing in the patchy field of grass at the Rock Dump.

Back on land at the foot of Roberts, he’s smiling but says he didn’t get his full 10 minutes. It was about eight, he said.

“Not the best day to fly,” he said.

Still, he adds, “It’s better than watching TV.”

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